Within the complicated universe of military acquisition is a relatively new method of decision-making that forces the US Department of Defense and the military services to make choices that balance want versus need.
A reversal of sequestration is still needed — specifically in the area of national defense — to sustain adequate investment in the military systems of the future. But if there is one silver lining, two years after the sequester was triggered, it is that the Pentagon for the first time in a long while is being forced to prioritize and make tough choices.
None of the military services is off-limits. The Navy is learning its limitations with the littoral combat ship. The Marine Corps is cautiously eyeing a redesigned fighting vehicle. The Air Force is attempting to cut its A-10 attack aircraft while the Army has made deep program cuts of its own.
For the Army, which has shown to be the least resourceful at times, there is at least one example of something being done right. The initiative to retrofit and upgrade the engines of the workhorse Black Hawk and Apache helicopter fleets via the improved turbine engine program is a testament to intelligent decision-making in the new budget era.
The Black Hawk and Apache are some of the most tested and capable airframes in the Army’s rotary-wing inventory. Despite carrying engines that are 30 years old, these airframes have a lot more life left in them, and upgrading the propulsion systems will vastly increase operational capability and save billions in precious defense dollars. Over time, the program will deliver an engine that will double the range, provide 50 percent greater power and 25 percent more fuel efficiency than the existing engines.
When combined with reduced maintenance and logistics costs, the Defense Department calculates these new engines will save the Army as much as $1 billion a year. That is not only a major benefit to the Army, but it is a significant cost-savings to taxpayers — a definitive win-win.
But overall, it’s the war fighter who stands to gain the most. One of the hard lessons of Afghanistan is the need to operate at higher altitudes, in hotter temperatures and for longer missions. A new engine means that rather than using two Black Hawks to fly 11 soldiers to a distant outpost, the same mission can be accomplished with just one.
A new engine will also permit the Apache to carry more ammunition and operate for an additional hour. For a soldier or Marine on the ground, the Apache is already a lifeline that can deliver a devastating blow to the enemy. An additional hour of flight time will only make the Apache more lethal and an even better friend to the Marines and soldiers who rely on its firepower.
Retrofitting the Black Hawk and Apache will require a continued Army commitment and congressional support. The program already supports Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s call for a “smaller and more capable military,” but it’s increasingly more important for lawmakers to look carefully at all of the programs in the Pentagon’s budget and determine what is working and what is not. As they do, they are sure to see the improved engine program as an example of an investment that needs to be preserved to increase America’s combat capability and effectiveness.
There is not much good with sequestration, and the military services have already paid a heavy price. But as we have learned lessons in Afghanistan, including the importance of more durable airframes, sequestration is also providing lessons of its own. In the case of the Black Hawk and Apache retrofit programs, the Army has shown it can adapt.
Even if sequestration is alleviated over the long term — and let’s hope it is — the sound judgments on display within the Army and the other services must continue. Whether the budget is considered too large or too small, that should not take away from the military’s duty to be smart as it prepares for the future. ■
Rep. Hunter is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He said engine upgrade work would not be performed in his district.